For the last half a decade, the road to the NBA Finals in the Eastern Conference has run through LeBron James, and that certainly looks as though that will be the case once again this year.
LeBron led his Cleveland Cavaliers to a 57-25 record and the top seed in the Eastern Conference. Following a four game sweep of the Detroit Pistons in the first round, in a series eerily similar to Cleveland’s series last year against Boston, the Cavs now draw an Atlanta Hawks team that is flying high (pun 100000% intended) after knocking off the Celtics in six games.
The Big Three of Kevin Love, Kyrie Irving and James are 100% healthy, unlike in the 2015 playoffs, and are poised to run through any team that gets in their way, so can anyone stop them in the East?
Starting with Atlanta, it doesn’t look good for the Hawks, who got swept in the season series 3-0, but one of those games did go into overtime. In each of those three match ups, the Hawks were out rebounded and the big three of Cleveland could not be stopped.
The Cavs also didn’t allow the front court duo of of Al Horford and Paul Millsap to take control of games like they did at times against the Celtics. The most productive player for the Hawks in the season series was Jeff Teague, but he’s struggled so far in the playoffs and lost a lot of playing time to rising star Dennis Schröder.
The Hawks are one of the those teams that has enough talent to get to the second round, but just can’t over the hump.
Assuming Cleveland takes care of Atlanta, they’ll face the winner of the Miami Heat vs. Toronto Raptors series.
The Raptors are the second seed in the Eastern Conference, but were pushed to the brink by the Paul George led Indiana Pacers, and the series went the full seven games. The Raptors took two out of three over the Cavs in the regular season, with one of those wins against a Cleveland squad that was without Kyrie Irving and the other coming on a Kyle Lowry game winner.
The main key for this series could rest on Kyrie’s ability to cover Lowry. In the two games this season, Lowry torched Irving for 23 points and 10 assists in one matchup and 43 points in the other.
However, if history does truly repeat itself, Lowry will be more of a hinderance than a help for Toronto. Against Indiana, Lowry shot 31% from the field, 16% from behind the three point line and only scored 13.9 points per game after averaging over 21 a game in the regular season. That, coupled with Irving’s red hot shooting against Detroit (47% from the field, 47% from three, 27.5 points a game) could spell disaster for Toronto.
Another factor that could sway this series even more in Cleveland’s favor in the play of Kevin Love. Love played well in all three games against Toronto and had a sparkling first round averaging a double-double and shooting right around 40% from three.
The final team the Cavaliers would have to run through before reaching the NBA Finals for a second season is the Dwyane Wade Miami Heat. The Heat also went seven games, but put on a show in game seven to knock off a surprising Charlotte Hornets squad.
The Heat, like Toronto, won two out of three against Cleveland, but only faced a fully healthy Big Three one time.
Miami dominated the Cavs in both of their wins, and this looks to be the Cavs’ toughest potential opponent remaining in the East. Miami has a stingy defense and certainly has more depth than Cleveland, even without Chris Bosh, who’s career is once again in jeopardy.
Veterans Joe Johnson and Dwayne Wade seem to have new life if their legs and have been helped out immensely by rookie Justise Winslow and Josh Richardson. Wade is one of LBJ’s best friends and knows the ins and outs of LeBron’s game, which can be vital information to the players with the unenviable challenge of guarding 23, likely a combination of Luol Deng and Justise Winslow off the bench.
The small ball approach could lead to some big games from Kevin Love, but his effectiveness inside will be altered by shot blocking expert Hassan Whiteside. Goran Dragic doesn’t seem to have the defensive chops to stay with Kyrie Irving for a full seven game series, but he’s creative on his own offensive end.
The Cavs are favorites to win the East, again, and while the Eastern Conference has certainly taken strides to be more competitive, there still isn’t a single player capable of taking the crown of off King James’ head.
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